Health Canada wins
Code of Silence Award
(9 May 2004 /CNW) -- The Canadian Association of Journalists has awarded
Health Canada its third annual Code of Silence Award, which recognizes
the most secretive government department in Canada.
officials everywhere hide vital information that they think might embarrass
them, their departments or their political leaders," CAJ president
Paul Schneidereit said in announcing the booby prize. "This award
is presented to honour them for their efforts to prevent open government."
finalists have shown remarkable zeal in suppressing information, from
concealing vital data about dangerous drugs to snooping through a reporter's
bedroom on a witch hunt for whistleblowers."
winner was announced Saturday as part of the CAJ awards ceremony during
the Association's 26th national conference. The Code of Silence award
a plaque featuring a padlock hanging from chains will be kept in safety
on behalf of the health department, which declined to send a representative
to accept it.
a period of more than five years Health Canada denied any meaningful access
to a database of prescription drugs that could harm or even kill Canadians.
The department refused to release information on adverse drug reactions
in a format that would allow researchers to study the records electronically
in order to spot trends and identify which drugs are causing problems.
For more than five years he department would only release the information
in a computer format that prevents the kind of analysis that could uncover
information of vital public interest. Adverse drug reaction data like
this is readily available in the U.S. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration
routinely makes such data available on its Web site.
parliamentary all-party standing committee on health eventually slammed
the department for failing to effectively protect Canadians who take prescription
drugs. The committee said the manner in which drugs are tested and approved
is too secretive, in large part due to excessive concerns about the commercial
interests of the drug companies. Health Canada finally relented more than
five years after it was challenged.
year's other nominees were:
The New Brunswick Department of Health and Wellness, for stonewalling
for more than a year on freedom of information requests to make public
two commissioned studies on health care resources. After a court appeal,
an appeal to the ombudsman and a confidential draft of one report was
leaked, the minister, Elvy Robichaud, still refused to make the two documents
public, saying, referring to the entire population, "you don't need
700,000 people to do the planning." Only after a public outcry over
his comments and a pending ombudsman's ruling did the minister finally
release the two reports on future health planning.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for their efforts to stifle the use
of confidential sources by journalists in Canada. After a prolonged court
battle in which the RCMP sought to obtain materials sent to National Post
investigative reporter Andrew McIntosh in the Shawinigate affair, in order
to try to identify who had sent the documents, the Ontario Superior Court
ruled against the police, stating confidential sources were an indispensable
means with which journalists inform the public in a democracy. The same
day of the court ruling, the RCMP raided the home of Ottawa Citizen reporter
Juliet O'Neill under the Security Information Act, in search of leaked
secret documents related to the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen
deported to Syria by U.S. authorities.
The government of Alberta, for its handling of a freedom of information
request involving a defamation suit against former provincial cabinet
minister Stockwell Day. After spending nearly $800,000 defending Day in
the lawsuit, a judge found the province attempted to manipulate public
opinion by selectively releasing documents on the government's actions
sought under the Freedom of Information Act. When The Globe and Mail and
the opposition Liberals requested more documents, they were told they
would each be charged an additional $60,000. Even after Justice Terrence
McMahon of the Alberta Court of Queens Bench drastically lowered the fees
and ordered the government to comply, the Alberta Department of Justice
released mainly old newspaper clippings and other documents of little
The city council of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for refusing
to open committee meetings to the media. Top courts in several provinces
have ruled that such meetings should be open to the public, but the municipal
council continues to deny reporters access to the city's committee sessions.
The CBC is now fighting the secretive policy.
year's winner was the Nova Scotia government for a year-long pattern of
secrecy, including instituting the highest fees in the country for access
to information requests. The result was a sharp decrease in the number
of requests under the Act. Prior winners also include the federal Department
of Justice for giving itself the power to override the Access to Information
Act and withhold any information relating to international relations,
national security or defence it deems sensitive; and the Ontario Ministry
of the Environment for withholding information about the Walkerton water
tragedy that claimed seven lives and sickened thousands more following
contamination of the town's water system.
Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with
1,300 members across Canada. The CAJ's primary roles are public interest
advocacy work and quality professional development for journalists.
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